How Stories Heal

Writing our Way to Meaning and Wholeness in the Academy

by Robert J. Nash (Author) Sydnee Viray (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 195 Pages
Series: Critical Qualitative Research, Volume 11


It is time for academics to embrace the fact that nothing is more appealing to readers – especially to our students – than personal stories with meaning-making implications that can touch all lives. No matter the age or stage in life, the personal or collective identity, everyone deals with meaning-making issues that challenge them – and others – throughout their lifetimes. And everyone we know finds that when encouraged to write their stories in the academy, they find meaning, wholeness, and healing.
How Stories Heal illustrates the value of personal narrative writing. Referring to this type of writing as the «turn to the subjective I» or to «me-search research», this is a book about Scholarly Personal Narrative (SPN) writing, actually written in an SPN style. This book will satisfy a huge need in higher education and scholarship, particularly for students who are writing undergraduate and graduate theses and doctoral dissertations; and also for junior and senior faculty who are looking to construct alternative forms of scholarship for publication.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Praise
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1: The Wisdom of Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing from the Head to the Heart…and Back Again
  • Chapter 1: Writing Our Lives as an Act of Personal Witness
  • A Letter from Jared: “Please Help Me!”
  • “Writing as an Act of Personal Witness” —Ruth Behar
  • How and Why We Will Write Our Book: A Summary
  • Who and What We Are
  • A Postscript
  • “Please Don’t Be Scared of Me” (Jared)
  • Chapter 2: Writing Our Way into Healing, Meaning, and Wholeness A Personal Example
  • My SPN Essay: “What Does My Life Mean? The Most Urgent Question of All”
  • Spiraling Downward: A Personal Case in Point
  • My Existential Anxiety: Should I Live or Should I Die?
  • So What Is the Meaning of It All?
  • Cycles of Meaning Making
  • My SPN Afterthoughts—What I Learned: Writing My Way to Healing, Meaning, and Wholeness
  • Healing
  • Meaning
  • Wholeness
  • Chapter 3: If Stories Heal, Then What Exactly Is a Story? And How Do I Find My Writer’s Voice?
  • How Do I Find My Writer’s Voice?
  • Putting the Theory into Practice
  • “My Father Died in 2007”: My 2013 Eulogy
  • Chapter 4: Starting Out…and Finishing The First Class Meeting—and the Last—on How to Write SPNs
  • Welcome to Our Writing Class: The First Meeting
  • Our Course Syllabus
  • Scholarly Personal Narrative Course Syllabus
  • What Is Scholarly Personal Narrative (SPN)?
  • Required Readings in Alphabetical Order
  • Our Preliminary Gift to You—Some Inspiring Writing Maxims
  • How Our Students Respond to the Syllabus
  • Fast Forward…to the End of the Course
  • Comments from Students’ SPN Manuscripts
  • Resources: Example of a “This I Believe…”
  • “This I Believe…” Robert J. Nash
  • Chapter 5: Dissecting My Own SPN Writing One Author’s Self-Evaluation
  • Revisiting My Previously Published SPN on Teaching and Learning
  • The Passion to Teach…and to Learn
  • Retirement Is out of the Question…for Now
  • Passion, Eros, and the Classroom
  • Passion as Artful Madness
  • Teaching with Cool Passion
  • My Spirituality of Teaching
  • So, What Did I Learn in Writing My First SPN in 2002? A Summary of My Use of SPN Tools and a Self-Evaluation
  • Postscript: A Series of Thematic Maxims about Teaching and Learning
  • The Thematic Maxims
  • Chapter 6: How “Deep” Writing Heals When It Comes to Love, “We Are All in the Same Boat”
  • “We Are All in the Same Boat”
  • “Deep Writing Is Meant to Mean…”
  • Jarett Chizick’s Personal Letter
  • The Need to Love Puts Me in the “Same Boat” with Jarett
  • Discerning the Love—Wisdom in William James and Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Chapter 7: Some Pungent Reflections on How to Do Personal Narrative Writing Inspired by Maya Angelou
  • Part 2: The Emotional Impact of Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing from the Gut
  • Chapter 8: Connecting My Isolated Self to My Communities
  • Reclaiming My Language
  • Wherever I Go, There I Am
  • My Survival in the Aftermath
  • Chapter 9: Creating Wholeness Amidst the Brokenness of My Everyday Life?
  • Drawing on My Breath: A Letter to All Souls That Have Felt Broken
  • The Deeply Disturbing Episode
  • In Darkness, Detachment and Descent Are Witnessed
  • Deserving Detachment
  • The Cycle Transforms
  • The Precious Moment of Transformation, My Inner Goddess Manifesto: Invitation to Become a Person of Soul, Heart, and Mind (in that order)
  • A Final Reflection on How I Found Wholeness in SPN Writing
  • Chapter 10: Revealing the Healing Ironies of My Everyday Life
  • Irony: Cutting My Complex Life Down to Size
  • To the Bullying Manager:
  • How a Resignation Letter Can Be a “Song of Freedom”
  • Chapter 11: “Walking My SPN Talk” Writing My Healing Is the First Step Toward Helping Others Write to Heal
  • Self-Validation Precedes Universalizability
  • My Declaration of Independence May Help You to Declare Yours
  • Filling the Blank Pages: SPN as Mindful Writing
  • Part 3: The Transformative Power of Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing about Change from the Field
  • Chapter 12: See Me, See You Finding and Accepting Your Authentic Self
  • I. see me
  • Beauty and Body
  • Oshune to Moon
  • Come and Gone
  • Love and Loss
  • II. see you
  • Family, Courage & Resilience
  • Turning the Unexplainable into Lullabies
  • My Mother Taught Me to Be a Warrior
  • We Were the Daughters
  • Finding and Accepting Your Authentic Self
  • Reciprocity, Honesty and Integrity
  • Chapter 13: Enlarging the Circle of Students’ Self-Understanding Through Stories
  • Understanding My Own Story
  • My Scary First-Grade Teacher
  • My Wonderful Yia Yia
  • Making Space for Our Students to Tell Their Stories
  • Students Find Meaning in Their Stories
  • One Strategy for Revealing Stories
  • Reflecting on Our Own Stories as Educators
  • Taking a Risk to Grow as Educators
  • Supporting and Nurturing Each Other
  • The Story and the Circle
  • Chapter 14: Anybody’s Fairytale
  • Untitled
  • Untitled
  • Chapter 15: A Final Letter to Our Readers Down-to-Earth Tips for Writing Stories That Heal
  • Bibliography



First, I wish to thank Sydnee Viray, my talented and fearless SPN co-author and superb intellectual ironist, for once more taking on such a formidable book-writing project with me. You are truly an SPN exemplar of the highest order as well as an invaluable personal support for a later-life professor like myself.

Second, I am indebted to those writers who contributed pieces to this book. This includes (in alphabetical order) Wind Paz-Amor, Jarett Chizick, Madelyn Nash, and Jen Prue. Thank you each for your willingness to write from both your heart and your head.

Third, I am professionally grateful to the following colleagues at the University of Vermont for their willingness to support a new type of scholarly methodology and, also, to serve on a number of SPN comps, thesis, and dissertation committees. I list these colleagues in alphabetical order: Judith Aiken, Penny Bishop, DeMethra L. Bradley, Holly-Lynn Busier, Judith Cohen, Deb Hunter, Christopher Koliba, Colleen MacKinnon, Wolfgang Mieder, Jen Prue, Charles Rathbone, Cynthia Reyes, Jill Tarule, Shelley Vermilya, Stuart Whitney, and, of course, the Dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont, Fayneese Miller. I also want to thank Richard Greggory Johnson III, a professor at the University of San Francisco, for his undying loyalty and encouragement.

Fourth, I cannot thank enough all the students through the years who have chosen to write their way to healing, meaning, and wholeness in their SPN course assignments, as well as in their final comps, thesis, and dissertation manuscripts. The number of such students is now in the thousands. Please know one and all that I admire your ability, energy, wisdom, and inspiration.

Fifth, I cannot say enough about all the students who have gone through my Interdisciplinary Graduate program over the past 45 years. You have taken on the formidable challenges of SPN writing, even when it was not fashionable to do so in a Public Ivy University. Trust me when I say that without your extraordinary talent, grit, and determination throughout the past four decades, we would not have been able to legitimize SPN as a valid research methodology— not just at the University of Vermont but throughout the country and abroad.

Finally, I offer enduring gratitude to my always-supportive, and brilliantly discerning, wife of 51 years, Madelyn A. Nash. You are an ideal combination of both head and heart, and I can honestly say that I would never have been able to produce over 100 scholarly articles and 14 books without your loving presence, and patience, in my life.

—Robert J. Nash


“The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.”

—W. Somerset Maugham

I would like to acknowledge my esteemed coauthor, Dr. Robert J. Nash. He has been a rock of support and a lantern of guidance as I navigate my journey as a scholarly writer. Though we mostly wrote this book in separate physical spaces, he was always with me via phone, video calls, or through emails. It was his voice that championed me as I dove deep, leaned in and on, and re-discovered the mysteries of my own healing and meaning making journey. For this I am honored to label him as a dear friend.

My acknowledgment would be empty if I neglected all of the souls that I have met who are survivors and especially those who have listened to my stories, my revisited conversations of self-recovery, and who have found me to be their nonjudgmental witness to their excursions toward healing.

I would like to especially acknowledge all those who are about to read this book who are on a journey to find meaning and wholeness in the walls of the academy, we wrote this to you. To remind you that you are not alone on your path toward wholeness as a scholar, writer, and most importantly an individual who has a story to share. Dare to find the meaning that this book could have for you as you progress toward healing, meaning, and wholeness.

Thank you to all of the editors at Peter Lang Publishing and to our endorsers who have read the manuscript to give their honest reflections of our work.

—Sydnee Viray


Part 1

The Wisdom of Scholarly Personal Narrative

Writing from the Head to the Heart…and Back Again

In the chapters that follow in Part I, Robert explains the whats, hows, and whys of Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing. Some of the chapters are more personal than others—by intention. Robert’s goal is two-sided: to illustrate the more technical principles and techniques of SPN writing by telling his own story and by drawing briefly on the stories of others. The wisdom of SPN lies in the recognition that writing from the head to the heart…and back again requires a unique set of technical skills that enable both the writer, and the reader, to arrive at the ultimate goals of self-understanding and self-transformation. These skills include a willingness to dig deeply in order to discover the truths that lie buried in our pasts and presents, an ability to thematize and universalize these insights for readers, and a profound, almost unyielding commitment to the belief that writing one’s way to healing, meaning, and wholeness is not only possible—it is necessary. All of this leads to wisdom. ← 1 | 2 → ← 2 | 3 →


Chapter 1

Writing Our Lives as an Act of Personal Witness



A Letter from Jared: “Please Help Me!”

Dear Professor Nash,

I am so sorry that I have been out of touch the last year since my graduation. This is not a happy email. I have been lost in every sense of the word. I am unhappy with my work situation, even though I make more than enough money to satisfy my needs. In fact, I hate my boring job, even though for the first time in my life, I’ve achieved financial freedom. A lot of my friends have moved away from Vermont in order to find work, settle down into a lasting relationship, and add stability to their lives. My best friend is joining the Army because he thinks that the uniform and the medals will give his life a meaning that it hasn’t had since he graduated. I feel lonely and down all the time. I am beginning to wonder if I should go back to school and pursue a graduate degree. I certainly can’t go home, because New York city is another world for me right now, and my parents just divorced…angrily. In fact, I never had much of a relationship with my family—a father who was a drunk and a drug addict, and a disillusioned mother who was always in denial and who spent most of her time hidden away in her bedroom. But, if I return to school, what should I study? I am just not happy with who I have become, and I am struggling to dig deep and get back into fighting shape to deal with the next several years of my quarterlife. As we so often talked about in your personal narrative writing class, I need some meaning big-time right now. I’m living, but I’m living like ← 3 | 4 → a dead man, if you know what I mean. I’m wasting my zombie life away lazing around on the couch, eating crap and getting fat, playing stupid electronic games on my dumb phone, hooking up with anyone and everyone at the dreary drinking bars downtown, and then, before I know it, the hookup chicks disappear from my life. Poof. Gone. I graduated cum laude with a business degree. I thought I was set. But I’m not. I have no idea who I am, why I am, or where I am. I’m seeing two different therapists each week, but I end up bullshitting them. Anti-depressants make me feel even flatter than I am without them. So, Great Professor of Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing: what should I do? I really, really need to be back in one of your courses. I am so ready, particularly at this juncture, to make sense of my life. I need to write. I need to tell my stories. What is it you used to say: each of us needs to write our way into meaning and wholeness. Why wasn’t there some place on campus for me to go to write about all this stuff throughout the four years when I was a student? I only did this in your writing course. Truth to tell, I didn’t take most of your stuff seriously. It just didn’t seem like real academic work for me to write about me. Well, Kind Writing Professor—I do now. Believe me—I do now. Please help me.


VIII, 195
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (November)
scholarship publication identity
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 195 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert J. Nash (Author) Sydnee Viray (Author)

Robert J. Nash has been a professor at the University of Vermont for 45 years. He is the director of the Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Studies in Education. He is a prolific scholar, having written 14 books, many of them national award winners, and well over 100 articles, as well as dozens of book chapters and reviews. In 2003 he was named an Official University-Wide Scholar in the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Vermont. This is his fifth book published by Peter Lang. Sydnee Viray is a highly respected student services administrator at the University of Vermont. She is a social worker and consultant/scholar in the areas of diversity and inclusion and financial management for mission driven non-profits. She has over 10 years of experience bearing witness to the countless stories of individuals who have been on a path of seeking wholeness and meaning. She is currently a Scholarly Personal Narrative writing co-instructor and co-author.


Title: How Stories Heal
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